by Christi Craig
A week before I left to study abroad for the summer in Costa Rica, I stood outside the Pilgrim Circle Nursing Home. I wrapped my fingers around the handle of the heavy, wooden door and pulled hard. The lobby was dark in contrast with the bright sun outside, and it smelled of pine. Or ammonia, maybe. It felt wrong to be there, a twenty-year-old entering the realm of the dying. I squinted until my eyes adjusted to the light. An uncomfortable presence engulfed my back like a wool sweater with itchy, pricking fibers, so I held my breath and walked – toe-heel, toe-heel – as quiet as possible. I searched my mind for tips on proper nursing home etiquette.
Say hello to the old woman slumped over in her wheelchair, parallel parked against the wall? But if she was sleeping, I hated to wake her. Pick up the lone sock abandoned in the middle of the hallway? How did it get there? Lost it in a skirmish between a patient and a nurse, I imagined, or left behind, like a crumb, marking the trail back to someone’s room.
I passed by a doorway and heard an old man beg me for help. With a bed change, I guessed, since my nose hairs stiffened as I inhaled the pungent odor. The nurses’ station sat right across the hall from his room. I slowed my pace and considered telling them about the old man, but they were deep in quiet conversation about the weekend — one nurse in a chair behind a desk and the other leaning over the counter, her right foot bouncing on the heel of her left. I pictured my grandmother, who took a year and three falls before she admitted she needed to move into Pilgrim Circle. She would be caught dead before she called out to a stranger walking down its hallway. At her room, I pushed open the door. She sat upright on the bed with her hands folded on her lap, the TV blaring in the background. “Hi, Grandma,” I said over the noise.
“Rachel, baby.” She waved. “Come on in. I’m just watching my show.”
Every day at one o’clock, she tuned into her favorite soap opera and watched with the same reverence she used to give the pastor at church on Sunday mornings. Today, a young man took center stage on the TV screen and spoke passionately about his wife’s transgressions – greed, pride, lust – he oozed with charisma and was hard to ignore.
Every day at one o’clock, she tuned into her favorite soap opera and watched with the same reverence she used to give the pastor at church on Sunday mornings.
“That one has a problem with the drink,” Grandma said, pointing to the wife. “She lost her baby because of it.” She shook her head in disappointment. I nodded, amazed at how she got so attached to fictional characters.
While the show played on, I surveyed her room: a hospital-issued plastic pitcher filled with ice and water, a Styrofoam cup with a bent straw, a standard coffee mug – white – left over from an earlier meal. It was nothing like the fine china she displayed when she had a house of her own. After a few minutes, my grandmother leaned over and turned off the TV. She put her hand on my knee and used it as a support to right herself on the bed again.
“Have you talked to your mama?” she asked. My face grew warm and I looked away.
The last conversation I had with my mother had ended in a heavy silence and a disconnect. I had refused to attend my step-father’s sixtieth birthday gathering. My mother threw an extravagant party for him, even after she found out he’d been having an affair for the last several months. I told her I wouldn’t go, on principle. I could hear her breathing into the phone, but she wouldn’t speak. It had been a month since she hung up on me.
I said, she was probably busy with work.
“Will you see her before you go?” My grandmother asked.
I said, I’d try. I thought, I hoped so. Hers was always the last face I saw before every little trip I’d taken alone. Whether I left for a week at summer camp or ran off on a five-day frolic at the beach with girlfriends, my mother made sure she waved farewell as the bus or the car pulled away. I couldn’t imagine walking the jetway without turning around to see her give a brief wave, then smile, then brush her hair behind her ear. Always the hair behind the ear, just before she put her hand to her chest.
“Maybe I’ll see if she wants to take me to the airport.” I shrugged.
“Hmm,” Grandma said, and she wiggled a bony finger at her nightstand.
“Open up that cabinet for me, Rachel.”
Under her nightstand, Reader’s Digest books and boxes of tissues filled the shelves, and a bottle of lotion lay out of reach. I grabbed the lotion.
“No, no,” she said. “The big box. On the bottom.”
I squatted down in front of the cabinet and looked again. The box was far enough back that I missed it the first time. It was the size of a phone book and looked just as unimportant.
“Oh. I see it,” I said.
“Take that out for me, would you?” She smoothed the bedspread and patted her lap.
I pulled at the back of the box and slid it slowly towards the front, and, as the bulk of it left the edge of the cabinet, it threw me off balance. The wood was dark, almost black, and heavy and carved with the initials of my grandmother’s name.
“This box holds the weight of my entire life,” my grandmother winked. After I placed it gently on her lap, she told me to shut the door.
“Of the cabinet?”
“The room,” she said.
When the latch clicked, I turned back towards the bed. The box, now open, smelled of cedar. She waited for me to sit, and then, removing newspaper clippings, a chiffon scarf, and crumpled Kleenex, Grandma uncovered a pile of snapshots ranging in size, color, and thickness. She handed me the photos, one by one, while she searched for something. I recognized most of the people: younger versions of my cousins, my grandmother with salt and pepper hair, and my mother in her beehive days. Uncertain about one photo, I brought it close to my face and asked, “What’s this, Grandma? All I see is food.”
“That’s the table we set for Thanksgiving at Aunt Peggy’s house, that little house right off of 56.” She looked over at me. “That was the year Junior died.”
She looked up from the box but didn’t pause for a second with her answer. “That’s the table we set for Thanksgiving at Aunt Peggy’s house, that little house right off of 56.” She looked over at me. “That was the year Junior died.”
Aunt Peggy lived in a white house out in the middle of nowhere with Junior, her skinny husband. Their lawn was always brown and the house leaned to the west. When we visited that Thanksgiving, I wasn’t old enough to play five-card stud in the back of the house with my cousins, who used toothpicks and matches for their ante, but I was allowed to help out in the kitchen. Mostly, I just stood by the door and fetched ingredients from the pantry. From my post at the door frame, I had full view of Junior, who had planted himself in a chair at the kitchen table by the window. Wisps of hair covered his head, and he was missing a front tooth. He sat with a glass of iced tea in one hand and a cigarette in the other. When he smoked, he raised his cigarette up to the corner of his mouth, closed one eye, and took a long drag.
He sat back in his chair and stuck his left leg out in the middle of the main traffic pattern. Aunt Peggy turned from the gravy and popped the bottom of Junior’s boot with the towel hanging from her apron. She danced around his feet and in and out of the kitchen like it was a game. Junior caught my eye once and barked at me like a dog. Not knowing whether to laugh or run, I froze until Aunt Peggy came back into the kitchen. My mother followed her. Junior ignored Aunt Peggy for a minute and threatened to trip my mother by switching his legs around when she walked by him.
“Junior, for Pete’s sake,” Aunt Peggy huffed, “get those nasty old boots out of our way!” She handed my mother a chocolate cake. He pulled his foot back, but pinched Aunt Peggy at the hip, right in the middle of the cake exchange, and Aunt Peggy almost dropped dessert. When my mother took the plate, Junior grabbed Aunt Peggy and pulled her down into his lap.
“Oh Junior,” she whispered loudly as she slapped his thigh, “not in front of the kids.”
He laughed, then she laughed, then my mother muttered something under her breath as she passed through the door.
My mother had no tolerance for Junior, she’d told me once, especially after two o’clock in the afternoon. I knew Junior walked around with a sweet smell on his breath and red eyes. And, I’d heard about the times he massacred the turkey on Thanksgiving, when he was only supposed to carve himself a piece or two. But, I was too young, until that year, to understand exactly what two o’clock had to do with Junior’s antics and my mother’s disgust.
Junior began to chew the ice from his tea. Then, he grunted.
“What?” Aunt Peggy said. She stood at the open oven door with her back to him.
“You put too much ice in the tea again, Peggy.”
She basted the turkey. “Smell that, Rachel? Rubbed in oil and the best poultry seasoning in town.”
“I’m talking to you, woman,” he said.
“Your mama says I baste the turkey too often,” she said to me. “Let all the heat out every time I open the door. But I say, you gotta drown the turkey in its own juice. That’s the ticket.”
Junior slammed his hand down on the table. Aunt Peggy jumped, but then she laughed. “Stop it, Junior, you’re scaring the kids.” She threw her dishtowel at him. Junior caught it with his right hand and held it.
“You know I hate weak tea.” He balled up the towel and threw it back at Aunt Peggy. It hit her in the stomach and fell to the floor, but she didn’t flinch. She picked up the towel and shook it out. Junior got up then and walked over to the refrigerator.
Aunt Peggy froze. “Junior, don’t,” she whispered.
“Mind your business, woman.” He reached into the cabinet above the refrigerator and pulled down a small glass bottle. When he opened it, I recognized the sweet, sharp smell. Junior carried his bottle to the table and fell back into his chair.
He reached into the cabinet above the refrigerator and pulled down a small glass bottle. When he opened it, I recognized the sweet, sharp smell. Junior carried his bottle to the table and fell back into his chair.
I looked at the clock. It was 2:15.
When the bottle was empty, Junior eyed up Aunt Peggy as she went back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room. He asked her for “the other pint.”
She stirred the gravy.
“Don’t you go ignoring me, Peggy!” He stood up from his chair.
She put the spoon on the stove and turned slowly towards Junior. Smoothing down her apron, she sashayed his way. “How could I go ignoring such a handsome man like you, Junior.” She reached out to put her arms around him, but he slapped them away.
“I got a right, woman. Where is it?”
She looked at me and then stepped back over to the stove. Pouring the gravy into a bowl and handing it to me, she pulled the turkey out of the oven and told me to walk on ahead of her into the dining room.
I turned towards the door and heard Junior growl.
I looked back at Aunt Peggy. “Keep moving,” she whispered.
From the dining room, we heard a loud crash in the kitchen. Aunt Peggy met Junior at the kitchen door just as he stormed out. He shoved her out of the way and grabbed his keys from the counter. Aunt Peggy ran after him. I saw Junior had upturned the kitchen table, so I ran to the front window. My mother grabbed her purse off the couch and dug out her camera.
After Aunt Peggy chased Junior out the front door, he jumped in the truck, slammed the door, and hit reverse. She yelled, “The hall closet, Junior! It’s in the back hall!” But, he peeled out of the gravel driveway anyway and almost backed right into the ditch. Then he made a sharp left turn onto the road and took off like he might head to Arkansas and never come back.
Junior didn’t really go anywhere, though. He drove his truck back and forth in front of the house. He gunned it east and slammed on his brakes outside Mrs. Peter’s old yellow house on the corner. He spun the truck around and gunned it west all the way to the T in the road, to the pasture where the Johnson’s kept their bull. Back and forth, he drove his truck like that for four or five turns. Aunt Peggy hollered at him the whole time.
Hitting the gas and slamming on the brakes several times caught the bull’s attention. The bull pumped his front hoof on the ground at first, then he tossed his nose up. The next time Junior headed down the road towards the pasture, the bull came running.
Bulls and horses can run full speed towards a fence and then stop on a dime. But Junior must have forgotten about that. The bull must have spooked him. When I expected Junior to slam on the brakes, he swerved towards the left instead. His tire grazed the edge of the ditch, and his truck lost its balance, rolling into the ditch and hitting the fence. At the sound of metal, my mother called to me from the dining room. I pressed my hands to the window. Aunt Peggy stood, frozen, at the end of the driveway.
“Junior,” was all I said.
When my mother opened the front door, Aunt Peggy began to wail. Behind me, I heard a scurry of feet and watched in silence as my cousins pushed each other from the back of the house and out the front door. Aunt Peggy fell on her knees at the side of the truck, while my cousins stood in a cluster in the middle of the road. My mother ran towards Aunt Peggy, and then she ran back towards my cousins. She grabbed Benny, the oldest, by his shoulders and yelled at him to call an ambulance.
When Junior crashed his truck, he flew through the window and knocked a big gash in his head. The turkey grew cold on the table and the gravy gelled while we waited to hear from Aunt Peggy at the hospital. At nine o’clock, we finally got word that he died. We sat around the table and picked at our dinner. We were all starving, at least I was starving, but no one felt right digging into the turkey without Junior.
The turkey grew cold on the table and the gravy gelled while we waited to hear from Aunt Peggy at the hospital.
My mother bought Junior’s suit for his funeral, because Aunt Peggy couldn’t afford one. And, my mother called sick into work and stayed at Aunt Peggy’s for almost two weeks to take care of her.
“Why did you keep this photo?” I finally asked.
“It was the only picture we took that day. Your mother snapped it minutes before Junior died. She said she wanted to make sure she got a good shot of the table before he got back inside and ruined the whole dinner.” Grandma put her hand on mine. “Your mama felt terrible that she said such a thing.” She took the picture gently from my hand and handed me an envelope. “Here,” she said, “this is what I’ve been looking for.”
Inside the envelope, I found a gold necklace with a pendant bearing an image of a man holding a child. On the back, it read, St. Anthony. “Who’s St. Anthony,” I asked.
“A Catholic Saint,” she said, matter of fact. “The patron saint of lost things.” She raised her eyebrows and looked me straight in the eyes.
“But you’re not Catholic,” I laughed, a bit confused.
“I know that.” She slapped my thigh. “Mary Roberts, the nurse who used to visit me once a week, before I ended up here,” she wrinkled her nose, “she gave it to me. Mary was sweet, more like a friend than a nurse, and very devout. She said prayer every day at lunch, and insisted that I make the sign of the cross at my chest. I did it,” she shrugged, “figuring it couldn’t hurt. And, when I started losing things, getting so forgetful and anxious, Mary told me to wear that necklace, said Saint Anthony would take care of me.” My grandmother sighed. “I do miss Mary,” she said. “But you take that necklace. You need it.”
I looked at her, puzzled.
“Rachel,” she said in a soft voice. “I don’t know about that Catholic voodoo. But, I do know that at some point every woman loses something precious.” She closed my fingers around the pendant and squeezed my hand. She looked over at a photo next to her, one of my mother and me riding together on horseback the summer I turned thirteen, my mother’s arms around me, holding the reins. “If anything, keep this necklace as a reminder that some things lost can still be recovered.”
I looked into her blue eyes and thought of Aunt Peggy, my mother, the guilt.
My grandmother took the pictures from my lap and placed them back in the box. She covered them with the tissue, the scarf, the newspaper clippings. I slid the box back into her cabinet.
On my way home, I dialed my mother, holding my breath as I hit “call.” The few times I had tried her last month led to one ring and a quick bounce over to her voice mail. This time, though, my call rang twice, three times, and she finally picked up on the fourth. I let go, then, of my breath and my worry, of a heartache that stretched long and deep, and I settled into the sound of her voice as she said my name.